Sheila LeJeune: The Transformer

Through the interior wall of windows of her elevated office, Lt. Sheila LeJeune, MS, LDN, RD, has an unobstructed view of the beehive of activity below on the production floor at Lafayette (La.) Parish Correctional Center, where she is foodservice director. No matter the work of the moment, be it re-doing menus for the two-month period to come, drawing up equipment specs or perhaps conferring with opportunity-buy reps, LeJeune keeps a sharp eye on the comings and goings of the approximately 20 inmate workers below.

She does so for good reason. On a recent day, she had to call down to correct one inmate who was washing a blender, base and all. "He was plugging in a blender he'd just washed while it was still wet, he could have gotten electrocuted," she explains. "I try to tell them where I'm coming from without shouting because then you lose control. We are in charge of providing care, custody and control as well as compassion for the inmates. 'Compassion' was added by our deputy captain, everyone is always to be treated like a human being. It's all part of our mission statement."

Far cry from filthy: LeJeune's personal mission for the past 23 years has been to run a ship-shape and cost-effective foodservice operation now serving more than 1,000 inmates per meal, including 100 females, for about $2 a day ($2.04 in September). In fact, it is the first correctional center in Louisiana to be accredited by the American Correctional Association (ACA), as it has been for the past 12 years, and by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Association (CALEA). In addition, the Lafayette Health Department has recognized the staff as operating one of the cleanest commercial kitchens in the city. It's a far cry from the "woefully filthy" kitchen she found upon her arrival (in another building) more than two decades ago.

Like so many of her correctional foodservice cohorts across the country, LeJeune's original career goal did not focus on working behind bars. After teaching institutional administration for several years at her alma mater, the University of Southwest Louisiana (now known as the University of Louisiana-Lafayette), LeJeune worked in a hospital as a consultant. An appeal by a doctor who also did some work at the jail led her to a part-time consulting role to help it develop special diets.

"One of the biggest reasons for hiring me was a lawsuit brought in 1982-'83 against the Lafayette Sheriff's Department by a federal inmate who was not provided with a diabetic diet while incarcerated," she says. "The department would have lost this million-dollar suit had it gone to court; since he tried to escape the case didn't proceed. At that point, the department realized this could happen again and again if they didn't get these special diets under control."

Under budget: LeJeune and her staff of 10 foodservice personnel and about 20 inmates served about one million meals in 2005, of which 161,107 were special diet meals she developed, including calorie-controlled diabetic diets, low salt, bland, modified consistency diets (including clear liquid, full liquid, soft and puree) renal and pregnancy diets. From the outset, LeJeune has consistently aimed to keep food costs low while providing high-quality meals, and she always has money left over from her $1.2 million annual budget.

Sometimes it's used for equipment purchases, like the $50,000 spent last year for a new walk-in cooler, a new three-compartment steamer and tilting skillet, but often it's disbursed to other departments. "Last year I spent $825,000 in raw food (purchases) to put out about one million meals," she says. "Per day we give inmates about 3,000 calories versus 2,500 required by the state of Louisiana. My inmate employees can eat double portions plus additional food items and coffee, some of the perks of the job, but otherwise there's always the canteen if they want to purchase more food."

Seven-fold increase: The transformation of the department progressed slowly and steadily from LeJeune's first day on the job and during that first year as a part-time consultant, then accelerated as she went to full-time the following year. "In 1983-'84, when I first started as foodservice director, there were about 200 inmates," she says. "In December 1984, the new jail opened and we put out 13,000 meals just that first month. Shortly after, they double-bunked, and now we're up to 90,000 meals per month out of the same kitchen! I started with three deputies in the old jail and now I'm up to 10."

"When I started, the place was so filthy I didn't eat here for two months," she continues. "There were no sanitation or food-handling standards in place. During those first few months we got it cleaned up, but there was a lot of resentment toward me by the deputies because I was in control and not them."

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